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Opposition Research: Columbus Crew vs. Chicago Fire

Ahead of Thursday’s match, Hot Time talked to Massive Report’s Pat Murphy about the undefeated Columbus Crew

MLS: New York City FC at Columbus Crew SC
Crew head coach Caleb Porter talks midfielder Darlington Nagbe
Greg Bartram-USA TODAY Sports

As the Chicago Fire are set for (yet another) restart to the 2020 MLS season on the road tomorrow in Columbus (6:30 p.m. CT, WGN & ESPN+), Fire fans will need to come to grips with a very difficult truth: The Crew are really good.

How good? Can this team actually win it all under Caleb Porter? For answers, we turned to our SB Nation friends over at Massive Report, and managing editor Pat Murphy:

Hot Time in Old Town: How good is this Crew team? I had Columbus pegged as one of the teams that could have won it all in Orlando, but they lost in a shootout to Minnesota. What will it take for the Crew to make a deep playoff run?

Massive Report: That’s a good question. The Crew is definitely better than last year after a bit of rearranging of the furniture, so to speak, following the transition from Gregg Berhalter to Caleb Porter. The team now fits what the second-year head coach wants much better. As seen in Orlando, the Black & Gold should be competitive in MLS this season with a strong defense, guys like Darlington Nagbe and Lucas Zelarayan running the midfield and Gyasi Zardes up top.

With that said, how much of the MLS is Back performance is real and how much is fool’s gold is unknown. While dominant in recent years, these aren’t the New York Red Bulls or Atlanta United teams other MLS fanbases have grown to hate. Those wins may not have as much shine when you look back on the tournament later on. Was the inability to breakdown Minnesota United in the Round of 16 game a product of tired legs, a lack of any real desire and a well-organized defense or something more? We’re going to find out over the next few weeks.

I think this is a team that should certainly make the playoffs and can make a run, but I’m not ready to call it a title contender just yet.

Hot Time: What has Caleb Porter been like thus far, and how does he compare to Gregg Berhalter?

Massive Report: Porter and Berhalter are similar in some ways and but very different in others. In terms of style of play, they both want teams that keep the ball and create through possession. The major difference is how they do that. Berhalter loved to dive into every analytical detail of the game and create patterns for guys in various scenarios to attack or stop the opposition. This worked well in Columbus where he didn’t have a big budget and had to bring out the best in certain players to have success. Porter wants players who react to situations on their own and don’t need as much programming. With new ownership, they have been able to find a few more of those guys.

In terms of the way they go about coaching, Porter is a bit more of a hard-ass than Berhalter. He has less of an issue getting on a player. Gregg would do it when necessary, for sure, but he often stayed more composed both on the sideline and on the practice field.

Having been around each, I can see the merits of both ways of coaching. Of course, there’s no right or wrong way, but it’s just about having a team that works with what you want to do.

Hot Time: How great has Darlington Nagbe been this season? I’ve always felt like he’s one of the most underrated players in MLS, and it seems like he’s flying under the radar again in Columbus.

Massive Report: Nagbe is in fact a talented player, I can confirm. In all seriousness, it’s been great to see Nagbe in this Crew midfield. He really helps enhance the way the Crew play and has brought out the best in Artur alongside him. This is no slight to Wil Trapp, who was a great player and leader for this team for many years, but Nagbe’s ability on the ball and his possession numbers are off the charts and he makes the build-up so much better for Columbus. He doesn’t get the credit he deserves, as you mentioned, because he doesn’t put up big stats or make crunching tackles, but he does his job and he does it really well.

Hot Time: OK, with FC Cincinnati in the league now, where do the Fire rank as far as the Crew’s biggest rivals? For years I felt like we were each other’s most hated opponent, but it feels like that’s not the case anymore. Maybe that’s for the best. Fire fans are already gearing up to hate St. Louis City.

Massive Report: Yeah, the rivalry has certainly cooled since the early days of the league or even back in 2008ish when the two sides battled for the top spot in the East. I think part of that has to do with the teams not being as good at the same time and, as you mentioned, other rivals emerging. The Crew now has Cincinnati, but even before that Toronto came on board and the Trillium Cup was thrust upon both teams.

I think if you asked older fans, they would still say they hate the Fire or D.C. United as much or more than those other teams. The Hell is Real derby certainly has some steam but that will fade if Cincinnati doesn’t figure out how to be competitive. For me, when I think of the Black & Gold’s true rival, I think of Chicago, but I may be in the growing minority on that one these days.